Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: Shadowrun 5th Edition (Part II)

(Update: The PDF of the game is now out. You can grab it over at Highly recommended.)

Welcome to Part II of my Shadowrun 5th edition review. If you missed Part I you can find it over here.

In the previous review I gave a brief overview of the book and went through the first 5 chapters as far as the combat rules. In this review I'll cover the remaining sections as well as my overall thoughts on the product.
  1. The Matrix
  2. Riggers
  3. Magic
  4. Gamemaster Advice
  5. Helps and Hindrances
  6. Streetgear

The Matrix

The Matrix, as we all know, is the information systems that surround metahumanity on a daily basis. The Matrix chapters goes about explaining what it is and the people who can manipulate it for their purposes. Enter the Hackers. 

In Fourth Edition we had two types of people who could manipulate the Matrix, Hackers and Technomancers. In SR5 these are grouped under the Hacker descriptor and split into Technomancers and Deckers. Yes deckers are back. (Does a little dance.) There's a small party going on here. Seriously, there's cake and everything (Editor's note: The cake is a lie.)

With 4th edition the changes from wired decking to the wireless world was one of the most controversial of the game. Yes it made sense to increase the technology to accommodate a logical extension of connectivity but a lot of people disliked it. Well with SR5 the hacking/decking/Matrix has been almost completely rewritten. Wireless is still there, items are still connected to the matrix wirelessly and it's still a major function of the setting but the hacking itself has changed along with the Matrix.

Not having read the setting books for 4th edition for the metaplot I'm not entirely sure of the reasonings but the corps have taken back control of the Matrix from the free for all it was in 4th edition. The Matrix is now organized into grids, think of them like your cellphone providers network. You want to hack into an Ares facility but you get your access from Shiawase, then you'll need to change grids to gain access if you want to go in wirelessly. There are public and local operated grids as well.

With the changes in the Matrix the corps have cracked down on security heavily. Now each grid is monitored by a division of the Grid Overwatch Division (GOD) of the Corporate Court (we all know them, they're the big guns of the corporate matrix world.) The division in charge of each grid are known as demiGODs. Basically it is their job to monitor their assigned grid for illegal activity. If you play nice there isn't any problems, but as soon as you start doing something illegal you begin to build an Overwatch Score (OS.) This score represents the traces you're leaving in the Matrix and allows the demiGODs to track you down and attack and dumpshock your decker ass. Anything you attack something you will gain a score, if you fail to sleaze your way past a barrier your score will increase. If you hack someone's commlink to access their files you'll gain a score. Hit 40 and they're all over you.

With all the changes to the hacking rules, and believe me from 4th edition they're practically rewritten everything, it flows in a much more general manner. The disadvantages you get from working wirelessly through static and noise encourages the groups decker to join the rest of the team in getting close to the target, or if possible, physical contact for that elusive hardwire connection that is the best.

The decker can also help bolster the groups defenses against wireless attack on their own personal devices since most things connect to the Matrix for one reason or another. Smartguns connect to download up to the millisecond wind conditions, vehicles connect to determine traffic patterns etc.

Oh and decks are back. With the increased security the average commlink just isn't up to the task of performing the illegal activities required by the average groups hacker. And yes, there is a Fairlight Excaliber for a large fee if you want it.

Most of the actions in the Matrix are more generalized in order to make the system flow smoother but the core dynamic now is the application of MARKs (Matrix Authentication Recognition Keys) to a target. Basically a mark is like an authorization code. The more of them you can apply to an icon/device/file etc the more access you can attempt to get. However they've also played up brute force as a way to get things done. If you don't have authorization, and don't want to spend the time trying to sleaze your way into it, you can go the full frontal attack option. Noisy but effective.

Lets not forget the technomancers now. Another controversial part of the SR4+ world they are definitely here to stay, rare as they may be. In previous editions technomancers seemed overly powerful but here they've toned them down a bit. Yes they have huge advantages but their disadvantages are also played up a bit more. They've basically balanced them in with deckers in the new hacking rules and for the better.

If I have one criticism of the Matrix chapter it is the art. Don't get me wrong, the art is good, but I would have liked to have seen some actual images of what the Matrix looks like in standard iconography to give the players and the GM an idea of what to imagine. Granted a lot of it is a lot more abstracted than it was, gone are the days of the massive host maps from 1st edition, but it would still have been nice to visualize it a bit more.


The Riggers section isn't very long, only 9 pages, but it means it's concise and to the point. Basic rules for those who wish to take complete direct control their vehicles and drones (and even buildings) as an extension of their own body. No real surprises or differences from previous versions here, just a simple set of rules for this area.


Ah magic, that one place where Shadowrun stands different from the other cyberpunk style RPGs out there. Well that and the orks, trolls, dragons, you know what I mean.

Magic has always been a complicated set of rules in Shadowrun. SR4 and SR20A made an attempt to unify the systems and simplify the magic rules that had gotten out of control over three previous editions and numerous sourcebooks. SR5 does the same thing.

Not a huge amount has changed over the previous editions. Some drain has been tweaked in the spellbook to balance the mana and physical spells out a bit more, some spells have been tidied a little but not much has altered.

The main spellcasting flow seems to have been simplified from earlier editions and it now consistent for all spells. This means no more trying to remember sub rules for different spells.

The biggest change is what seems at first a very minor one. Reckless Spellcasting. It's only briefly mentioned but the impacts of it are huge for any combat spellslinger. In previous editions (as with SR5) casting a spell is a complex action, so you can only do one per action phase. What Reckless Spellcasting does is allow you to cast a spell as a simple action instead of a complex one. This add +3 to the drain value of the spell. Unlike with regular ranged combat (I'm assuming most of this will be due to combat and a single gun can only fire once per action phase) you can attack/cast twice in your round. In that case you would get +3 drain to each spell.

This is one paragraph under the Sorcery section that mentions this, blink and you'll miss it, but it will definitely change the way you think about your spells and will like make people bold the old adage "geek the mage first."

The traditions, that practically disappeared in SR4 and SR20A, have re-emerged. While not as defining as they were in earlier editions (1-3) they're definitely brought back in and acknowledging that strong history and setting element.

Watchers are now not straight spirits but creatures created from a (short) ritual and therefore brought into being with Ritual Spellcasting rather than Conjuring as previously. Although Watchers do now have the manifest power whereas previously they were confined to the astral plane alone (though now entirely sure if this is a typo or not especially now that rituals can animate an inanimate object as a homunculus as well.)

One other big change is to spirits and edge. Catalyst have already spoken about this one on their blog so I won't go into it too much, but basically a bound spirit can now no longer use their edge while bound or during a service. The summoner can allow them to use their own edge pool. This does prevent massive spirit edge spamming that could result when spirits could use their own edge while bound. It does make conjurers a little less powerful (if they took advantage of this previously,) but in a good way.

Spirit summoning, binding and banishing works pretty much as I can recall it working before just with a bit more attachment to the types of spirit based on the conjurers tradition.

Alchemy is called out as a separate skill now in order to encourage the use of preparations, and has been incorporated into the core rules. This allows the alchemist to create single use items (want to put a fireball spell on that doorknob, well you can.) Also allows you to have healing stones or items in your pocket in case they're needed (I had sudden visions of it merging with D&D there.) Useful stuff, if you've got the skill, even if the items don't retain their potency for more than a matter of hours.

Adepts, nothing really new here. Metahumans who instead of casting can use the mana to enhance their physical attributes and abilities. Perfect for those who want to play a ninja, or perhaps Chuck Norris. Useful people to have around especially if the fighting gets up close and personal.

The chapter rounds out with details on the astral plane, nothing new here for old timers but a decent overview of what it is and how it interacts with the physical world, details on mentor spirits for the traditions (this is a little more detailed than in SR20A), a pretty good section on using reagents in spellcasting and rituals, and the good old Initiation. Initiation is a short section (only 2 pages) but it's something that usually gets expanded upon greatly in later supplements.

Gamemaster Advice

A 46 page section geared towards giving advice to the gamemaster. We've all read these sections before yes? Right? No, not like this. My favourite GM advice book/section is definitely "Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads" for Cyberpunk 2020. This is now my second. It's not so much about fragging the players over as Listen Up, but more about giving the players a challenge, presenting the world in a suitable manner etc. It also handles general everyday interactions between the world and the characters including the best description and details about SINs since the gameline came out (seriously how has it taken this long to examine SINs in any detail?)

The focus shifts around quite a bit covering designing a run, interaction and motivation of NPCs, running and managing sessions and campaigns, reputations and other areas for the character interaction, but it does it all in a very detailed and yet concise way with good writing that is a joy to read. It's a general grab bag of what doesn't fit in the other sections that a GM should know with a large section on how a High Threat Response team would act and an extremely useful bit on various types of security and how different threats are dealt with. Excellent work.

There are also a collection of small location templates and maps that seem to have been taken from the Sprawl Sites series of products released over the last year. It's a good idea to have them in here for reference and to help the GM.

Helps and Hindrances

I love the name of this chapter, it sets the tone perfectly. This is where you find the meat of the information on NPCs from a rules perspective, grunt rules and the like. A good number of pages are devoted to contacts, the rules for them and how a player would interact with them. 

 It's also where we get the critters, the big nasties of the sixth world. Also included are rules for drugs, toxins and the substance abuse and addictions that can come from them. It's a shame more of the great information from the excellent Sim Dreams and Nightmares couldn't have been included here, but you can't include everything in a core book. 


50 pages of toys and guns. Everything from things that go boom to vehicles to get you away from things that go boom. Cyberweare, biotech, magical equipment, drones all of the fun stuff. No point going into details here, it's a collection of everything a team (or a GM) needs to make a run. 

The only real flaw with this chapter is that there isn't enough art. Really there is art of some guns, but almost nothing else. This is a great place to illustrate the style and look of Shadowrun in the equipment used by those in the setting, but the quantity is slim. Yes there's plenty of art through the rest of the book but I like to see more pictures of cool stuff. Personal preference.

Remaining Pages

Closing out the PDF, along with the obligatory character sheet is a one sheet Random Run Generator. Basically a series of tables to randomly roll and generator a run on the lines of "The runners go to a meet at XXXXX, are hired by YYYYY for ZZZZZ targeting AAAAA and is complicated by BBBBB (because we know it always gets complicated.) Fun for those writers block moments.

At the very end are two massive pieces of art of cityscapes that we've seen online before, one of Berlin and one for Tenochtitlan. Some nice high resolution copies of the art for all Shadowrun rulebook covers (1-5, 1 & 2 used the same art.) And four other art pieces from various other books, of which I only recognize one from the PDF book Elven Blood.


This is a hefty PDF, and will make a hefty book when it arrives. Sometimes size isn't everything but I believe the decision to increase the page count was a good one for one particular reason.

I can envision that during the SR5 production meetings someone put up their hand to make a suggestion to their megacorporate boss to meekly suggest that they increase the page count by 30-40 pages or so and fill that extra space with examples of the rules. To whomever made that suggestion in the face of corporate greed and risk their metahuman hide, I salute you. I'd like to come round and shake your hand. 

Every major rule is detailed with an example in this book. Every time I'd read a rule or section and think "I didn't quite understand that," I'd turn a page and there would be an example going through that rule in a gaming situation that made everything perfectly clear. Every. Single. Time. If there was anything someone thought could potentially be confusing or would be useful to clarify, there's an example. This may seem like a small thing, but it was something SR4 and SR20A suffered from, and it's great to see that having being taken into account. So bravo, I can't thank you enough.

The layout is much better than the previous two editions. SR4 had a completely uninspiring layout with the colour scheme causing things to not register in the mind so well and making it hard to reference. SR20A was too cluttered and while beautiful made referencing difficult as well. With SR5 they've cleaned it out, cut down the clutter from SR20A and made it very standardized for easy referencing. Good job guys.

The artwork is generally of very high quality and, good news for older fans of the game, there has been a conscious attempt to head back to its roots in the art with lots of tribal motifs, feathers, tasselled leather and the like. Not sure I saw a mohawk though.

All in all Shadowrun 5th edition is well worth it if you're a fan of the game. It improves on 4th and SR20A in almost every way and some smart design decisions have ironed out some of the issues of the new system from SR4. I wasn't the world's biggest fan of SR4, but I could see what they were aiming at. It's taken a couple of iterations but I think SR5 has finally hit the target that Catalyst wanted.

I will say the book may not win any new fans though. If you hated the world and rules of SR4, you'll not like this. Also unfortunately due to it's lack of background material it may be too intimidating for a new player to get into at this point, but for people who like SR4 & SR20A but thought the rules weren't quite there then this is the product for you.

Did I mention yet that I love the examples?

(Update: The PDF of the game is now out. You can grab it over at Highly recommended.)

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